The little radio station that could (and still does)
Out in a little town in West Marin is a big idea crammed into a tiny space.
That idea is KWMR, a self-made radio station whose voice rises from the eclectic communities it serves. The small space is a three-room warren in Point Reyes Station consisting of a broadcast studio, a second studio that doubles as a kitchen (and triples as an emergency response center), and a 20-by-20-foot outer room that holds a pair of cubbyholes, a part-time receptionist’s desk and towering shelves of CDs that line nearly every wall, more than 6,000 in all, each color-coded by genre.
The KWMR office provides a visual onslaught so intense that a first-time visitor has difficulty sorting out the nooks from the crannies. Trying to find a focus point amid the creative clutter, a place for the overstimulated eye to rest, is somehow like trying to tell the story of KWMR, itself an unruly outgrowth of perseverance, talent and an unfettered dosage of “what if?”
What if, for example, a soothing voice reads books on the air weekday mornings? What if on some shows se habla Espanol? What if teenagers get air time to play whatever they want? What if doctors, journalists and activists host shows about medicine, national affairs and the environment? What if music ranges from honky-tonk to classical to Celtic? What if more than 100 local people voluntarily run the microphones?
What if, indeed, one radio station did all those things and more (add in an accordion festival)? Now you’ve discovered KWMR—and are beginning to understand its intention to be a “community” radio station in the fullest sense of the term.
The station, which broadcasts on 90.5 FM in the Point Reyes area and on 89.7 FM in the Bolinas-Stinson area, can be heard as far away as the ocean-side neighborhoods of San Francisco, to the southern stretches of Sonoma County and east to the hump of White’s Hill, which separates the San Geronimo Valley from Fairfax, and broadcasts are also streamed on the web
KWMR’s journey from humble beginning to modest maturity moves along a road well traveled by nonprofit community organizations. It began in 1995 with a committed group of people (headed by James Stark of the Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas and Marshall artist Donna Sheehan) who believed West Marin needed a media outlet of its own beyond the Point Reyes Light newspaper. They had ingenuity aplenty, but no money.
Their idea was magnetic, though, and it attracted a cadre of like-minded souls such as station manager Kay Clements and Aggie Murch of Bolinas (who had put in some time at KPFA radio in Berkeley). This group created the first iteration of KWMR, which broadcast over the local cable TV network, where it stayed in relative obscurity until 1999, when enough technology, know-how and funding came together and KWMR went on the air. Its 10th anniversary is May 2.
Kwimmer, as locals call it, is Marin County’s only fully licensed radio station. With just a 235-watt transmitter (KFOG by comparison has 7,100 watts), it’s never going to be a regional radio powerhouse—but neither does it want to be.
“The early vision,” says Clements, “was to provide information, education and entertainment within the West Marin area.” Today, she says, KWMR is “serving a bigger audience than we expected. There’s such an abundance of people here who have so much to give—and we’ve channeled that.”
The station also has learned to survive financially, moving over the years from broadcasting in a barn with an unpaid staff to its current comparatively ample quarters in Point Reyes Station’s Creamery Building and seven full- and part-time employees.
The station budget has grown from nearly nil to $430,000 for 2009, about a quarter of which comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and most of the rest from individual donors.
Adrienne Pfeiffer, who as development director has the endless job of chasing down money, says the station’s connection to the West Marin community is the key to its success.About 10 percent of the West Marin population donates to the station, she says, a percentage that is “off the charts.”
Certainly, not negating the considerable attraction a community might feel toward a locally owned and operated radio station—a rarity in these times of consolidated media ownership—much of KWMR’s popularity ultimately is determined by the same test its bigger and better financed brethren face: what’s on the air.
Surprisingly, perhaps, in a community as progressively liberal as West Marin, KWMR’s persona is nearly apolitical. Programming director Lyons Filmer says the emphasis on music, literature and community issues over partisan politics is intentional. “One thing we decided early on was that the station would not do advocacy programming as some (public radio) stations do,” she says. “We wanted the station to be open to all parts of the community.”
KWMR’s on-air persona is, as Filmer puts it, “quirky and all over the map.” What’s more unusual, perhaps, than a station whose shows run the cultural gamut from The Hippie from Olema (a llama rancher) to The Punk from Inverness (a Marin Academy student) to Shorty’s Bunkhouse (a produce market owner) is the hands-on-the-mike involvement of the station’s staff.
Each of KWMR’s three full-time employees—Clements, Filmer and Pfeiffer—has at least one show of her own, and sometimes more. Clements hosts Roadhouse Twang (“hick, hillbilly and honky-tonk”) on Wednesdays. Filmer does Celtic Universe (“soothing, comforting”) Saturdays. And Pfeiffer hosts Morning Thunder (use your imagination) on Thursdays.
In an era when the atmosphere surrounding commercial radio stations is fouled by an unrelenting emphasis on demographics, drive time and the bottom line, KWMR blows breezily through West Marin on a zephyr of freshly made airwaves. If there’s business going on at KWMR, it’s the people’s business. There’s homemade radio going on, and it’s personal.
Pfeiffer sums up the station’s ethos nicely. “One of my favorite things about KWMR and community radio is the demystification of media,” she says. “Instead of just ingesting media, we create it.”
KWMR’s 10th birthday bash is May 2 at Toby’s in Point Reyes Station. For more information go to kwmr.org.